Auntie T and Anti-T ~ Part II

Cousin Jimmy shares his bicycle with me

I didn’t know my cousin Jimmy’s father, although I knew his name: Red Conrey. He and Aunt T divorced before I was born and, in the way of children, I simply accepted the answer I received when I asked why Jimmy didn’t live with Aunt T and Uncle Harold: “Your aunt was married to Mr. Conrey, but they aren’t married any more. Jimmy lives with his dad.”

Still, the family was close, and there didn’t seem to be any lingering resentments. Each time she arrived from New York, Aunt T made a point of visiting Jimmy at his home in another town, or he came to stay with my grandparents.

Red was working as a house painter when he and Thelma married. Raised in nearby Knoxville, he may have met her there after she graduated from high school and began working at the Marion County Treasurer’s office. When my cousin Jimmy was born, Red was as proud as any father could be. One of the earliest photos of Jimmy, taken in July, 1938, shows him in his father’s arms.

Unfortunately, the photo accompanied a headline that had all of south-central Iowa in an uproar.

Des Moines Register, July 22, 1938

The mother being sent to prison was, in fact, my Aunt T. On Thursday, July 21 — only a day before the photo of Jimmy and Red was taken — District Judge Norman R. Hays accepted her plea of guilty to charges of embezzlement, and sentenced her to ten years in the Iowa Women’s Reformatory in Rockwell City.

He also imposed a fine of $2,098.58: an amount the Des Moines Register reported as being “to the penny the amount Mrs. Conrey was charged with taking from the Treasurer’s office through defalcations over a 15-month period.”

Needless to say, the shock to the town and to her own family — including my father, who was her elder brother — was exceeded only by the shock experienced by her husband. After pleas for clemency failed and sentence had been passed, Red held my cousin Jimmy in his arms and said:

I didn’t know a thing about this ’til the sheriff and the county attorney came out last night. “We’ve got bad news for you,” they said. I said, “All right, what is it? ” I supposed I was in trouble.
Then they said, “It’s about Thelma. It’s trouble over the funds at the courthouse. We’re keeping her at Hotel Marion tonight. Come in tomorrow. We wanted to tell you so you could make arrangements to take care of the baby.”

Conrey’s mother, with whom the couple shared a home, began making plans to feed and care for Jimmy, while Mrs. Anna Condaree, the bailiff, escorted Aunt T to the hotel: only a block from the courthouse.

The Hotel Marion, Knoxville, Iowa

Events seem to have moved quickly in those days. After a quiet, ongoing investigation, the arrest apparently took place on Wednesday. On Thursday, a bench trial was held, and the sentence imposed. That same day, in the evening, Thelma and Red bid one another farewell at the Hotel Marion. On Friday, Sheriff Paul Grundman and Baliff Condaree took her to Rockwell City, where she began serving her sentence.

Aunt T and Red bidding farewell at the Hotel Marion (Des Moines Register staff photographer)

In the course of the hearing, County Attorney Clarence Kading said he was aware of the hardship imprisonment would bring to the Conreys’ infant son, but he was unwilling to recommend a bench parole in light of circumstances beyond those involving my aunt. Judge Hays agreed. It was, after all, the second time in three years that money had been embezzled from the County Treasurer’s office.

William Johns of Knoxville recently had been paroled from the state penitentiary at Fort Madison after serving four months for embezzlement. While my aunt had served in the tax office during the time that Johns was commiting his own crimes, she denied any connection with his embezzlement in her confession, and there was no evidence to the contrary.

In any event, both the prosecutor and the judge seemed convinced that a stiff sentence might help to prevent yet a third embezzlement, whatever the consequences for the young Conrey family.

In her signed confession, Aunt T admitted taking tax payments which she received at the counter in the treasurer’s office, then balancing accounts by destroying the receipt stubs. Eventually, an audit of duplicate stubs revealed the shortage.

Highly intelligent, a good student, and a quiet, efficient employee in the treasurer’s office, there seemed no explanation for her behavior. Questions swirled around the town. Why did she do it? And where did the money go?

“I talked to Mrs. Conrey at length about that,” Kading said. “She used some of it to help out her parents and their family, but they didn’t know where the money came from.  And I’m positive her own husband never knew anything about the embezzlements. Apparently, she just spent it here and there as she took it.”

After entering the reformatory, Aunt T provided her own explanation for how it happened:

It used to be that I was almost afraid to make change for customers. I was afraid I would make a mistake, and we would balance up short. I wouldn’t even have taken a postage stamp.
Then I became thoroughly experienced with the work. The routine was easy, and I was confident in my own ability. I felt more secure in my job, and I began to buy things I hadn’t been able to afford before. Sometimes I let my smaller bills run along a little, but usually I paid up promptly.
But one day, shortly before pay day, I needed a little extra money for some incidental expense. While I was thinking about it, a customer came in and made a small tax payment. I took the payment and put it in the drawer. There was no one else around at the moment, and when the customer left, I began thinking about it.
I knew there were ways that money could be taken from a treasurer’s office and the shortage covered up for a long period of time. One way is to hold out the tax receipt stub and keep the money from the cash drawer. Of course there is a duplicate, which finally will show the shortage. But that usually isn’t discovered until the checker comes around.  There was plenty of time to put back the money after pay day.
I slipped the tax receipt stub in my purse, and took the sum it represented from the cash drawer.
That’s the way it got started.I saved the receipt stubs carefully at first, hoping that with the next pay day, I could pay back the balance. Then, one day as I walked home from work, I realized I had fallen into something from which I couldn’t escape. The little bunch of tax receipt stubs had reached a hopeless total. I now couldn’t even bear to add them up.
I was desperate, and wanted to drive what I was doing out of my mind. I gathered up the stubs and tore them up. I knew from that day I never could repay what I had taken, that this moment would arrive. I knew the check would find the shortage, and I knew that I would confess. But I forced all that into the other part of my mind and went on, trying to make ourselves a home.
Now I feel better than I have at any time since I pocketed that first receipt stub. I am glad I am here. My baby is in good hands at home. From now on, I’m going to try to cut down my sentence with good behavior.

Of all the surprises attached to the story of Aunt T’s life as a convicted criminal, perhaps none was more intriguing than the glimpse it provided into life at a women’s reformatory in the late 1930s.

Three years before her arrival there, the Des Moines Register published a feature article titled, “Iowa Prison Has No Walls, Armed Guards, or Real Bars.” It also preferred to be known as a reformatory rather than as a prison: a choice meant to emphasize its intent to reform individuals, returning them to society as responsible, functioning citizens.

Superintendent E. Pauline Johnston maintained an open door policy where her girls were concerned, and involved herself with each of the inmates from arrival to departure — a task made easier by a maximum capacity of only 78 women.

Superintendent Johnston introduces Aunt T (on the right) to her new routines (Des Moines Register staff photographer)

A series of photos published by the Register, accompanied by snippets from letters written to families and personal recollections, gives a sense of life within the confines of Lanedale, as the collection of farms and cottages was known.

My “cell” isn’t barred at all, but is very much like my room at home. After the day’s work I can read or knit in my room, or join a group of girls at the radio. Our superintendent, E. Pauline Johnston, selects good programs by a master control in her office. Good reading material is provided by a library.
Dear Folks: I’m finally learning farm life at — of all places — the women’s reformatory. I have to help milk part of the time. We’re milking 21 cows. Farming is a real business here, and showed a profit of more than $3,000 two years ago, although it lost $6,000 last year. There are nearly 40 cows and more than 100 hogs to take care of.

P.B.X. instruction is provided by the Rockwell City telephone exchange for girls who may want to be telephone operators after leaving the institution. The girls can learn typing and shorthand if they wish to seek office jobs later.

We don’t expect to give the symphonies any competition, but we get music instruction if we want it and have organized an orchestra that rehearses weekly.
We have a community choir which sings at weekly meetings, too. A minister comes from one of the Rockwell City churches each Sunday, rotating in order, so that all of us can hear preachers from churches in which we were reared. Most of us look forward to these Sunday meetings.

 Interest in the case continued for some time. On July 31, the Des Moines Register published an additional photo of Aunt T, holding the August issue of Pictorial Review: a woman’s magazine that often portrayed sweet children on its cover. Her grief at being separated from Jimmy was widely-reported and just as widely discussed. While regulations would have allowed her to see Jimmy every thirty days, whether those visits took place remains uncertain.

(Des Moines Register staff photo – John Naegle)
Cover of the Pictorial Review, Aunt T is holding ~ August, 1938

What is certain is that, according to 1940 Census data, Aunt T had been granted early release, and once again was living with her parents and younger siblings.

While her husband initially proclaimed his loyalty, saying, “This is an awful blow, but I’m going to stick by my wife. When she gets out, we are going to go away and get a new start,” the new start wasn’t to be. By 1940, they were divorced.

Eventually, Aunt T moved to Rock Island, where she served out the terms of her probation working as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. By 1946, no longer on probation, she made the move to New York. 

When I was born in October of that year, my parents received a congratulatory note written in my aunt’s lovely, cursive hand. I found the note last week, and noticed, for the first time, that it had been signed, “Thelma and Bill.” No doubt my parents knew Bill, but no living relative remembers his identity, and I remember only my Uncle Harold: the funny, cigar-chewing, New Jersey native who loved Aunt T, liked kids, cracked jokes, and enjoyed telling us he was “in garbage.”

When Aunt T entered the reformatory, Red told a reporter,”The baby never will know about it.”

Whether — or when — Jimmy was told his mother’s story, I can’t say. But for more than sixty years, I never knew. Neither parents, nor grandparents, nor neighbors, nor (most remarkably) any adult in that small, sometimes gossipy Iowa town uttered a single word to disturb my relationship with my aunt. It was as though a wonderful, tender conspiracy had formed to shield me from the unhappy facts. By the time an off-handed reference by my mother to “what Thelma went through” roused my curiosity, I was old enough, and experienced enough, to appreciate the complexity of what I found.

Today, rather than being disillusioned by my aunt’s imperfections or shocked by her behavior, I feel as though I understand her more fully: her attentiveness; her delight in sharing time with a child; her pleasure in gift-giving. Above all, I understand her concern that I learn the lessons of the elephant and pig.

One lesson, of course, is to save for wants, as well as for needs: to feed the delicate, bejeweled and floral-encrusted elephant as well as the pedestrian pig. But something in Aunt T’s note that escaped my childish attention shines today with the light of hard-won wisdom.

“Put this next to your piggy bank,” Aunt T wrote. “When you earn a dollar, put half into your pig for things you’ll need, but put half into your new elephant, for things that will make you happy.”

Today, I have no doubt. For Aunt T, the most important word in that last sentence was “earn.”

Comments always are welcome. Part I of this post can be found here.

109 thoughts on “Auntie T and Anti-T ~ Part II

    1. Thank you, Janet. I’m only sorry that it’s taken so many years to surface some of these stories. Our family always has been particularly close-mouthed, and my mother most of all. I suspect if Dad hadn’t died so early, I might have learned more, sooner.

      Now, putting the stories together is mostly for my own pleasure. The family has grown exceedingly small, and not all are as interested in history as I am. Ah, well.

  1. What a great story of making good and becoming even better. I would never think badly of Aunt T. No doubt those days in the past, efforts were made to not just punish but to rehabilitate.

    As for Red. A man’s promise of faithful often made with best intentions, but ever since that fateful Eve’s apple, wanes in the arms of another partner.

    1. I wouldn’t say Red was at fault in any way. I can understand the divorce — his desire to move on, and to get about the business of raising his son and caring for his mother (which he did, until her death) — but as far as I know, he never remarried and certainly wasn’t unfaithful to Aunt T.

      There’s a lot to like in this story — not the least of which is the way the family accepted Thelma back home. On the other hand, I can only imagine my poor parents. They were married in May of 1938, and Thelma headed to prison in July. When I asked my aunt how my dad took it, she said he was beside himself. He was the most honest person I’ve ever known — I can only imagine. As for my mother, the word is that she was so embarassed she never wanted to talk about it — which she almost didn’t.

      1. The photo of Aunt T saying goodbye to Red is such a lovely shot. Just notice her look, almost a sorry for her behaviour. They both looked much alike.
        I understood that when Red ‘moved on’ with his life, and then automatically assumed another relationship. Moving has as many variables as there are snowflakes…
        I am still struck about the sensible way to treat inmates at that time. I wonder how it was for males?

        1. They were so young. In that photo, I think Red was 24 and she was 23. They’d only been married about two years, and had a six-week old baby. The primary difference? She had been expecting to be caught, and for him, it was a total shock. I suspect that’s part of the reason that, at first, he swore things weren’t going to change. He didn’t want them to change — but they had.

          That’s a good way to put it: ways of moving on as variable as snowflakes.

          I really don’t know anything about the men’s prisons. I do know that for many years around the turn of the century, they were called penitentiaries. Then, reformatory became the term of choice for them, too. Now, in Iowa, at least, they’re back to a combination of penitentiaries and correctional institutions.

  2. Wow, what a family story. To try to imagine the family trauma, the blame, the shame, and, in the end, the acceptance of having given in to the temptation–what an honest account of a life lesson! I find myself reminded of the incredibly moving account of the diary in the Bridges of Madison County. But that was a novel, and your recounting is from real life. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    1. Looking back over the years, what seems most astonishing is that everyone seems to have moved on. Since my grandmother chatted with her friends in Swedish while she was snapping beans on the front porch, I can’t guarantee she never talked about it, but no one else did. Strangely, I suspect it was my mother who was most affected by it all: but she was the one in both families most concerned with “what will people think?”

      Of course, in 1938, there were other things to think about: particularly, the lingering Depression and my grandfather’s inability to work due to being injured in a slate fall in the coal mines. Klan activity (more anti-Catholic than anti-Black in their neighborhood) had declined, but left its mark. While the 1940 census showed Thelma back home, it also showed that my uncle Jack was 19. When WWII came, he would enlist and head to the Pacific: another worry for them all.

      So, yes. Real life. I do wonder now if some of my own ability to move on from trauma might have been nurtured by Aunt T. I can’t say that’s so, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, either.

  3. A stern punishment for a crime which she so easily and “innocently” fell into. I’ve heard this saying: sin will take you farther than you want to go, make you pay more than you want to pay, and keep you longer than you want to stay. For some that is so true. For your Aunt T, the loss was so great in time, husband and son.

    Glad for many redeeming factors in this story. For one the amount of respect which family and community showed by not indulging in hurtful gossip. She must have been loved by all.

    1. It’s been very interesting to talk with my one remaining aunt about all this. She was about the same age as one of Aunt T’s sisters — 15 or so, at the time — and the two girls went out to Rock Island to visit Aunt T for a week while she was working there during her probation. I think that, as much as anything, indicates the level of understanding and forgiveness that existed.

      What I’m unclear on is how she ended up in Rock Island during her probationary period. Clearly, there were some connections that allowed that to happen; I know that one of her school teachers was involved, and my newly-married parents were living in the Quad Cities at that point. However it happened, it was good. Even if people aren’t verbally gossiping, putting up with sideways glances isn’t easy.

  4. That is such an interesting story. It must have been fascinating to uncover the details you’ve shared. Yet, there are so many more things you will never know.

    It is remarkable how well a small community can keep secrets and not discuss certain things. I don’t know if that is a good thing, or bad. I suppose it depends on the circumstances.

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. You’re exactly right, Jim. Every answered question led to a dozen more. Only last week, I finally thought of the census records, found those for 1940, and was able to confirm (roughly) Aunt T’s release date, and the fact that the divorce had occurred.

      There was a serendipitous discovery, too. If you look at the front page of the “Des Moines Register” up above, you’ll see a smaller headline about Maytag. I had no idea there was labor strife there in 1938, or that the National Guard was called in to keep order.

      On July 21, 1938, just a day before Aunt T was sentenced in a courtroom about 30 miles away, the “Chicago Tribune” served up quite a report under the headline, “National Guard Rules Newton in Maytag Strike: Puts Down Riots, Closes Courts, Clears Streets.” I suspect my dad was glad he’d chosen to begin working at John Deere in the Quad Cities. He spent the rest of his career at Maytag, but didn’t start there until 1945 or so.

      Of course I didn’t learn about those Maytag strikes in school. We were a company town, after all, and a little forgetting is good for the Chamber of Commerce.

        1. What about Maytag Blue Cheese? You mean, other than that it’s the best in the world, and that I’m growing impatient for the recall to end, so I can stock up again? Sigh. There are other brands that could do in a pinch, but it’s not just hometown pride that leads me to say Maytag’s the best. At least it was. They’re in the process of upgrading the facilities, so I’m hopeful.

          There probably won’t be a post about the strike. Klan activity in the 1920s? That might happen.

  5. The most amazing part of this story, which you told very well, is that Aunt T took her punishment with an expectation and resolve unknown today. What began as a temptation that she fully expected to rectify, ended with a 10-year separation from her baby. I suppose that is one of the startling aspects of this story. Your inclusion of the photos of the day made these people come to life.

    We all have temptations.

    1. In a way, of course, there was a life-long separation from Jimmy: although his presence at family events and my memories of his marriage to a lovely woman do suggest the effort that was made to help him feel a part of the family through the years.

      There are many unanswered questions. For example: once Aunt T was released from prison after two years and returned home, did she have contact with Jimmy, or had he and his father already moved to another town? Did the conditions of her parole limit contact? And so on.

      In a way, none of that matters. As a family, we weren’t the Compsons, and we surely weren’t the Snopes clan, but Faulkner’s words still seem apt: “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”

  6. You’ve written quite a family story. Loved reading all of it. Fascinating to say the least. It’s a good thing that the money was missed early or she might have spent more time in the “pen.” Folks in the country here referred to the penitentiary as the “pen.”

    Anyhow, it all worked out and your aunt made a life for herself past her mistake. Not everyone is so fortunate.

    We all have family skeletons and I think one would be hard pressed to find a family that does not have them.

    Great story, Linda. Keep “um” coming.

    1. I’m not aware of any other family members who ended up in the pen (Iowa country folk called it that, too), but there certainly are other tales. My mother’s side had some real characters — the Swedes on my dad’s side said it was because they were Irish. My favorite, my great-great-aunt Ina, is the one I’d most like to be when I grow up. I’ll get around to her story before too long. (Now that I think of it, some of her shenanigans might have landed her in the slammer, depending on the laws at the time.)

      It did work out for my aunt, and I think it’s clear that it was a great relief to her. Of course, she wasn’t the only “thief” in the family. The night my mom and dad had their first date, he was doing a little bragging to her about the watermelon he and some friends had snagged from a field. She kept leading him on with questions and finally said, “You stole that from my grandfather’s field!” Whoops!

      1. Oh my a watermelon taken from a future in-law. That is funny. But at least it was only a watermelon. As an aside, I love those things and did not buy one at all this year. I substituted lots of blueberries and figs.

        1. Our fig crop was big this year, and I’m still getting blueberries at the farmers’ market. The farmers I buy from are from your part of the country — Montalba, over by Palestine — and i give thanks for them on a regular basis. They’re still bringing the most luscious peaches in the world. The rain has helped more than the wildflowers.

          1. Yes lots of figs but the squirrels love them and so do the doves and crows. It’s maddening. The late bearing figs are splitting- from the intense heat and then from all the rain. It irritates me so much for the need to compete with the critters. It is the same story each year. They start on the figs before they even begin ripening.

            1. Here’s a tip from my fig growing friend, who managed to keep the critters away this year. She hung slightly crumpled pieces of aluminum foil from all the trees. But — and there’s the trick — she says you have to do it as the figs are forming. Any earlier, and the critters will get used to the foil, and ignore it. Whether it would work for you, I don’t know — maybe your squirrels and birds are tougher up there. But it did work for her.

    1. I was glad for the ability to tweak those photos a little, Bob. Scanned newspaper photos from the 1930s aren’t necessarily the best. But even with less than perfect quality, I was very glad to find them: as well as being surprised.

  7. Goodness, that was a story I didn’t expect. Your aunt seems to have been given a second chance at life, and made the most of that chance. What upsets me about the current criminal system in NZ is that prison doesn’t ever seem to let go of the inmates; a prison sentence is a life sentence whether one serves 2 weeks or 20 years. A prisoner may as well be branded. Your aunt’s story and its place in your family history made me think of the thousands of Australians who now consider their convict ancestry as a badge of pride…….

    1. Thanks for the fascinating article, Gallivanta. Once I began reading, I remembered that aspect of Australian history, but it took a nudge.

      Two things surprised me in newspaper accounts related to my aunt’s experience. The first was how quickly things moved. It didn’t occur to me until today that there was no mention of her having a lawyer. I suppose the quick, signed confession and a bench trial helped to move things along, but still — in only a few days, the process was completed and life was topsy turvy.

      The other thing I found fascinating was the nature of life at the reformatory.The women did the field work unsupervised, as well as the butchering, canning, and so on. They were locked in their rooms at night, and there were a couple of cells in the basement for women who might need to “think things over a bit,” as Superintendent Johnston put it. Otherwise? They spent their days working hard, learning to work together, and sometimes just enjoying themselves.

      And it seems that, when it was over, it was over: exactly as it should be.

        1. It’s amazing, the similarities between this German prison and the place where my aunt served her term. Even with a first skim of the article, several of them jumped out at me: just a few cells for solitary confinement when needed, no guards with the women as they worked in the field, only one gun on the premises — an old rifle used to dispatch the occasional wild critter, or a suffering cow.

          In the newspaper article, the reporter asked one prisoner, a young woman driving a tractor, how it was that everyone stayed where they were supposed to be, when there were no guards. She replied, “As long as they let me keep driving this tractor, I’d never run away.”

          There’s a lot to ponder, there. Productive work might do more for every sort of prisoner — including those trapped in the welfare system — that we like to acknowledge.

    1. I didn’t hear it for a good many years, GP. I’m only glad i finally was able to piece it together. It gives me even more appreciation for my aunt.

      One tidbit that didn’t make it into the piece really caught my attention. At the time this took place, Red was making $100/month as a housepainter, and Thelma was making $95/month. That $2,098.58 wasn’t petty larceny.

  8. Interesting story you uncovered about your family member! I like how you tied it up with the elephant bank teaching a lesson.

    One sentence struck me: “It was as though a wonderful, tender conspiracy had formed to shield me from the unhappy facts.” I believe that was a very common practice back in the day to help keep kids as innocent for as long as possible. Now, of course, with so much media it’s quite difficult to shield children.

    1. I suspect that the “conspiracies of silence” served a larger purpose than protecting us children. As important as that was, silence may have helped preserve the social order, too.

      In those small towns, where families were the primary support system and mutual aid societies played the role that insurance companies and government plays today, social cohesion was crucial. As someone told me when I moved to rural south Texas, “In a small town, you don’t want to rock the boat, because you may flip everyone into the water.”

      You’re right about the media. In so many ways, they scorn the secret-keepers, and do their best to be sure no one has a right to privacy. it’s not entirely healthy.

    1. If I’d had one of those later photos, Martha, I would have added it. But we weren’t a photo-taking family, and there are large chunks of time where I don’t have a single photo at all. I do have one photo of several aunts and cousins at a wedding, but Aunt T is the one person missing from the lineup. I suspect she was taking the photo.

  9. The second half of Aunt T’s story doesn’t disappoint, Linda. It’s clear that prison’s goal of reforming the individual worked in her case. And how refreshing that prison back in the day was considerably more pleasant than today! Teaching the women new skills, giving them outlets such as music and sewing, all were beneficial and provided a chance for a more normal existence.

    And you know, it really doesn’t surprise me that everyone “conspired” to protect you from the truth. People used to be able to do that sort of thing … before *everything* became public in our digital world. In fact, I personally know of two children — completely unrelated but bound as brother and sister through adoption — and no one in the family blabbed. Probably couldn’t happen today.

    1. Of course, Aunt T hardly was a hardened criminal, so I suspect reformation was pretty easy. She probably was pretty far down that path the day she walked into the prison. I smiled at her comment that she was going to devote herself to “good behavior” so that she could begin applying for parole as soon as possible. Given that she was back home with her parents in less than two years, I think she must have been very good, indeed.

      Jean (two comments up) made the same observation about the urge to protect children, and our decreasing ability to do so. Beyond that, gossiping was frowned on, and we all heard the same admonition, time after time: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” That recommendation does have a downside, but we could use a little more of it today.

  10. Those old hotels all look so similar. What an era – back when there were adult things that “little ears” didn’t need to know… “wonderful, tender conspiracy had formed to shield me from the unhappy facts.” So much of childhood has been stripped away with all the honesty and brutal images on media.
    You were right – what a story!

    1. You have to have grown up with the phrase in East Texas: “little pitchers have big ears.” That one’s been around for a while. It was included in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs in 1546, and it was repeated ad nauseum around our house.

      Those old hotels not only looked the same, the fulfilled the same functions: room (and board if you liked); bus station; coffee shop. Now, I’m pondering another question: why was Aunt T taken to the hotel, rather than the jail? Was that common practice, or was it done because she was a woman, and recently had given birth? With so many facts at my disposal, it might be worth getting in touch with the Marion County Historical Society. There are so many streets and buildings bearing the name “Conrey” in Knoxville, I suspect they would have some information.

      1. Most of those hotels were located across the street/near the railroad station. (Fancy new bus transportation being down the block)And those hotels usually had a barber shop where all the locals went and exchanged “news”. When I was a kid Dad and I would drive in from the farm on Sat. where he’d get a cheaper than the big city haircut and catch up with what was going on in town ( considering we had a lot of relatives and cousins still there). We also bought a big city newspaper which I loved for all the comics and pictures of NYC, movies, and Broadway.
        Possibly that jail didn’t have accomodations for women – people were much more polite, and considerate – and of the mind she was a woman and mother that made a mistake not a hardened criminal, so they might have been being respectful of who she had been in the community and kind while firm about the law?
        Ad nauseum was right. But I think society might do well to return to teaching all those old proverbs, Poor Richard, to small children and K-12. We used to groan each Feb during President’s birthdays when we had to “cross stitch” with colored pencils on graph paper a proverb of our choice…but repetition does get messages to stick.
        If you find out more about the times/ Aunt T, please do an update!

        1. Interesting, how Iowa differed from East Texas. In Iowa towns, the hotels usually were on the town square, and even if the hotel had a barber shop, the “town” barber usually was on the square, in a separate space. Train depots tended to be on the edge of town; everything was plotted to a grid, and the rails ran along one side.. In that broad, expansive space, it was easier to do than it would have been in East Texas. In essence, Iowa was a corn-covered checkerboard.

          And don’t forget Aesop’s fables. Even without a peek at Google, I can remember the stories of the ant and the grasshopper, the dog in the manger, Androcles and the lion, and the lion and the mouse. I wonder how many children hear those stories today?

          1. The towns I’m remembering seemed to have grown away from the courthouse square (with the local cafes and law offices) toward the “new transportation mode” of rail lines and rail yards as that’s where new commerce developed with people/passengers needing services within walking distance of the trains.
            All those fables and rhymes – foundation background material for life and literature being lost.

    1. Aunt T was my childhood name for her. By the time I got older, I called her Aunt Thelma, or even just Thelma. I didn’t shorten anyone else’s name that way, and no one else called her that, even when speaking to me about her.

      As to why I called her that, there’s no sure explanation. Perhaps I heard the word “auntie” and thought it referred to her.

      Speaking of words, it amused me to learn there’s a connection — etymologically speaking — between her crime and botany. “Defalcation” was a word I didn’t know. When I learned that it’s rooted in the Latin “falcatus” (sickle-shaped, hooked, curved), it seemed familiar. Sure enough, my spiffy new glossary of botanical terms includes “falcate” and “falciform.” This takes “everything’s connected” to a whole new level.

      1. As soon as I came across defalcation in your post I looked up the etymology. The Latin verb from which the noun comes was created in the Middle Ages and meant ‘to mow [with a sickle].’ I guess the ’embezzle’ sense was originally a colloquial way of saying that an institution’s funds got “mowed.”

        I knew the botanical term falcate. I also knew from my college days the French adjective fauché that means ‘broke’ in the sense of ‘not having any money.’ I suddenly see now that that carries forward the medieval metaphor of getting mowed down, because the French verb faucher also developed from the Latin noun for ‘sickle.’ There’s never an end to new connections.

        1. When I lived in Liberia, the grass around the house always was cut with a machete that had its end bent up 90 degrees, giving it a vaguely sickle-like shape. They were effective as could be, and it was fun to watch the guys at work. Once the rhythm was set, they could cover a lot of territory. The tool was called a cutlass, rather than a machete, and the expression was to “cut grass” or “cut brush” rather than “mow.”

  11. Every family has its share of skeletons in the closet if the truth be known. My father’s paternal grandmother was a Dalton, and her husband used to caution her about talking about her family tree “because some of her relatives were hanging from it” (although I have not been able to find any evidence she was related to “those” Daltons . . .).

    Families are no different from any other cross-section of humanity. No matter how you care to cut it, you will find a few saints and a few sinners, but the majority will be ordinary folks just trying to get by. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations that came through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the World Wars had some hard times to deal with, and as your aunt demonstrated, a momentary yielding to temptation can be stepping onto a very slippery slope.

    1. Now, there’s a connection that’s rich in history. I think I’d almost hope there was a kinship: just because. When I was in high school, I dated a nice young man who was related to Wyatt Earp. We all thought that was the coolest thing ever.

      Truth to tell, we’re all a mix of sinner and saint, even if we’d like to think that we’re over here with the saints, while the sinners are over there. Sometimes circumstances put a thumb on the scale, and we tip one way or the other — as my aunt surely did. As you note, circumstances were particularly difficult during those years.

      The more I look at the chronology, the more I find of interest. For example: her practice of slipping a little out of the till took place over fifteen months. She would have begun not long after my dad, the oldest, left home to work in the Quad Cities. As the second oldest, she may have had an impulse — conscious or not — to make up for the assistance he’d been giving to their parents. Hard to say, but an interesting possibility as a motivation.

    1. Thanks, Becca. If only there were generations to come. Too many only children and childless couples do not a huge family make. Still, I have some ideas about extending the life of this particular piece. We’ll see. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  12. I have to say, this has been such a riveting and touching story. Your aunt deserves your love and respect, she came clean and lived a marvelous life after prison. How heartbreaking it must have been for her being parted from her son, that is punishment enough. If only prisons provided similar activities now! Brilliant writing

    1. Dina, once I began piecing things together, I found my aunt’s story equally riveting. In the end, I felt even more affection and respect for her. I wish we could have a long talk about it all, but I haven’t figured out how to accomplish that. Still, the lessons endure — she certainly did help to shape me, in ways I didn’t appreciate at the time.

      Thanks for the kind words about the writing, too. This was one of the hardest pieces I’ve written, simply because of the huge pile of new information that had to be assimilated and reshaped. I thought more than once of Lawrence Durrell’s wise words:

      “I spoke of the uselessness of art, but added nothing truthful about its consolations. The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies with this ~ that only there, in the silence of the painter or writer can reality be re-ordered, re-worked and made to show its significant side.”

  13. What a story, that serves as a portrait too – of a family, a place, a time. Your aunt chose to learn, to communicate, to appreciate…and to emerge from the reformatory with a few words of wisdom for her niece!

    1. That’s it, exactly, Aubrey: a family, a place, a time. My aunt’s story not only offered me a more detailed look into her life, it provided a glimpse into aspects of community life in those years which I never would have otherwise explored.

      And, as you suggest, it’s a reminder of the importance of choices. Aunt T made some bad ones, but she also made some good ones, and we all profited from the good choices she made.

      And, of course, I still have my jeweled elephant: a legacy to treasure.

  14. That is for sure a great lesson Linda, and very nicely written. This second post about your aunt explains everything and ties it all together.

    I have also been looking at pictures from my childhood. After my father’s death, a box full of old prints and negatives was found. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as ‘automatic’ reminiscing, probably ‘spontaneous’ is the right word, but I’ve been remembering things I thought I would never remember.

    Moreover, my older sister was here recently and she told me about things I did when I was a kid, so that added to the psychological introspection I’ve been undergoing ever since I found those childhood photos.

    I don’t know what is it about family which behaves like a root system that can make one feel like an “aerial” root, on the periphery, simply because of the so many relatives that did exist before you (or still do). The “tap” root, however, seems to always be the forebearer.

    Even when this “family unit” system could be so extensive and encompassing (engrossing even), in my case, the only way to learn was to leave the household. So when I graduated from high school I left the island, and my first lessons on earning began. I am forever grateful for my forebearers, but “cutting” family ties was crucial in my overall life’s learning.

    1. Of course, one of the primary tasks of parenting is preparing children for independence. From what you’ve said, I suspect you were well-prepared. On the other hand, parents have to be willing to let go. My mother wasn’t so keen on letting go; she was glad for me to go to college, but also expected that I’d come back home after graduation. I can still remember my father looking at her over the top of his newspaper and saying, “You know, she isn’t a little girl any more.” Mom knew, all right — and she wasn’t happy about it.

      Sometimes I wish I had more photos of the family, but the ones I have often evoke more memories than I’d expect: often, one memory leads to another. My aunt counseled me recently to write them down when they appear. As she put it, memories can go as easily as they come.

  15. I had this sense of sadness and let down, as I read the second part. Don’t get me wrong of course it was well written – that’s to be expected! But you got to the core of things and they weren’t so glamorous. Kind of like when you’re a child and everything is shiny and sparkling, but up close as you get older, things can lose their glitter. Anyhow, it was still good to read.:)

    1. It’s true that this part of the story wasn’t as happy as the first, but learning more about my aunt’s life in the years before I was born didn’t disappoint me. If anything, I feel even more respect and admiration for her. Life can be hard, and complex. Things happen that we’d like to wish away, but we have to take account of them. Pretending that things haven’t changed usually doesn’t work.

      I don’t doubt that, for a time, there was grief, shock, guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, and who knows what else among the family members. But in the end, things worked out. My grandparents were more forgiving and understanding than I imagined. Aunt T was stronger than I knew. And when my cousin Jimmy married a lovely woman, everyone celebrated, and life went on.

      And you know what? My little elephant still sparkles (despite the loss of one rhinestone), and so do my memories of Aunt T!

  16. Wow: Dateline, Knoxville, 1930s and 1940s! Read this from fellow Iowa town Orange City. Love the story! Compelling. Sensitive. Eye opening. I’m pointing others toward your blog.

    1. It’s always fun when an Iowan shows up: Welkom! Here’s a delightful coincidence. My dad and mom’s families (including Aunt T) were Melcher-Dallas people, and some of the relatives are buried in places like Columbia. But I grew up in Newton, about 30 miles from Pella. We always took part in Tulip Time, and I still order Dutch letters from one of their bakeries at Christmas time.

      Now, I see that Orange City was settled by Dutch people from Pella. I didn’t know that, although I knew about the Dutch heritage of the town. I see Orange City’s bidding to be the opening host city for next year’s RAGBRAI, too. Oh, the nostalgia. I remember the first year, when Donald Kaul and John Karras started the whole thing.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the story, and you’re welcome here any time. ~ Linda

      1. My funniest RAGBRAI story is the first time OC was a pass-through town. The town fathers handed out oranges as bikers went through. That was a true WTF moment before the abbreviation was even minted. Since then, we’ve learned a bit. We’re even planning a “beverage area” should we get the starting nod.

  17. It seems most families have some stories of this sort. it is amazing how time gives us a broader perspective, and some appreciation for the complexity of human existence. On a side note, it was most interesting to read a bit about the philosophy of the “reformatory.” Thanks for sharing this.

    1. I used to think that Tolstoy’s famous line — “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — was pure genius. Now? As apt as the saying is, I’ve come to believe that all families, happy and unhappy have their own way of being a family. The luckiest, of course, are the ones that can absorb a degree of unhappiness, and go right on: happy that they have one another.

      I was fascinated by the information about the reformatory. How different from a penitentiary. I was fascinated to find that penitentiaries originally were places of punishment for offenses against the church, although the meaning broadened over time.

    1. Thanks, Nia. Large or small, families are interesting, and just when we think we know all the secrets, another makes an appearance. It’s interesting, and fun, to learn new things about people we thought we knew everything about!

  18. Wow. Wow. Heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s an important story to know, a more important one to share. We can all benefit from T’s story — and the story of the reformatory, which sounds like an amazing place that treated the women with kindness, compassion, discipline and with a focus on getting the skills to move forward and interests to keep them lively and aware. I’m so glad you were able to hear this story before your mom died. I often wonder how many I didn’t hear because mine died so young.

    1. Actually, Jeanie, I didn’t learn any of this from my mother. While she let slip the fact that my aunt had experienced some “difficulties,” that was all she would say. And while my living aunt eventually offered the details thtt sent me searching — that she had had some money trouble where she worked, and that she had spent some time “under supervision,” as the old phrase had it, neither of them were particularly forthcoming.

      When I found out that my mother’s sister actually visited Aunt T while she was on probation — well, that made things even more interesting. Even my aunt’s daughter didn’t know that story. She was as surprised as I was.

      No, most of this I’ve unearthed in the past month, through the internet, and my aunt — once I started asking questions. Truth to tell, I suspect my aunt never was willing to say more about family matters until after my mother died. After all, Mom was the oldest, and my aunt was the baby, and I have a feeling she just wasn’t about to share things that Mom wasn’t willing to share.

      1. It sounds like your aunt may have been silent about her history, not to protect her own reputation, but to shield the family from embarrassment and shame. She really had a lot of wisdom and character!

        1. I fear my poor aunt hadn’t a chance of shielding anyone. From the time the story hit the newspapers, it was the 1930s version of a Kardashian breakup — at least for a time. What most amazes me is that the family as a whole was able to keep the secret from my cousins and me. I talked with another of my cousins since writing this, and she was as startled as I was when she heard the story.

          But you’re right. My aunt was a wise woman: utterly dependable, and a boon companion for a child. No doubt she enjoyed being around my other cousin and me at least in part because she missed out on certain experiences with her own son.

      2. I’m so very grateful your aunt is there to share these stories. I misunderstood about your mother. It’s a fascinating story and one that is wonderful to share. True, I can see why some might feel embarrassment or shame — but there is also great triumph and good that came from this.

        1. I’m not surprised you misunderstood. This is such a complex story, involving aunts from both sides of the family — I had a hard time trying to make it understandable. The actual events are one thing: those were straightforward. But as they say, it’s always the cover-up that gets complicated!

          You’re right that in the end, good came of it all. That’s what counts.

  19. I waited for this second installation of Aunt T. It is understandable that she was reticent to share too much while your mother was living. None of us like to be judged. All families have secrets which they sugar-coat to make it easier to digest. After a generation or so the stories become more colorful and are eagerly shared.

    I was sad to see her taken from her child, but she did adapt to prison life and seemed comfortable doing her own activities. I’m glad she recognized her problem and took steps to get out sooner. She was clearly someone who made an impression on your youth not only with the gift of the little elephant bank.

    Everyone makes mistakes, most of them not as dire as Aunt T.

    1. Your mention of sugar-coating reminded me how the old admonitions about charitable constructions seem to have disappeared. We were taught not to deny reality, but at least to begin with the best possible interpretation of peoples’ actions, and go from there. Today, people seem to rejoice in portraying others as worthless, contemptible jerks.

      My poor, unsophisticated forebears were perfectly capable of separating person and action, and not allowing mistakes — or even quite intentional actions — to define a person for all eternity. The more I think about Aunt T’s situation, the more I suspect the silence wasn’t just a means of protecting the children. It seems that the family as a whole simply moved on. In short, they truly forgave her.

  20. Yes, it is a sad story but also a happy one. Your Auntie T certainly learned her lesson and, what is more, she didn’t let it colour the rest of her life, but she passed on the wisdom gained so painfully.

    In those days prisons were real ‘reformatory’ institutions; not just places of punishment. I wish we could have them now, perhaps then there wouldn’t be this huge number of inmates who go straight on to commit new crimes, the moment they are released.

    I am glad that your aunt’s story didn’t turn you against her. Not everybody would have been as understanding as you.

    1. I’ve wondered over the past weeks how I would have responded if I’d learned all this as a child — or even as a young adult. Honestly, I can’t say, although there have been other family revelations that have been equally “interesting” that have been absorbed, mulled over, and left behind. What strikes me most is the existence of a familial difference in dealing with crises. My father’s family was good at it; my mother’s family coped, but didn’t roll with the punches quite as well.

      I agree with you about current prison systems. There are so many issues: overcrowding is one, and the existence of so many hardened criminals is another. By that I don’t mean only repeat offenders. Cultural and societal changes are producing people who are “hard” in every sense of the world: who have no respect for themselves or for others.

      Turn against Aunt T? Impossible. For one thing, even as a child I understood that stealing was wrong, but that temptation could be stronger. Even confronted with an empty chocolate chip package, I could shake my head and say, “No. Not me!” At least Aunt T confessed.

  21. A wonderful, not to mention surprising, story, and so well told. Your Auntie T made an incredible transition, without, it seems, a trace of bitterness. On the contrary. It’s interesting how easy it was to slip from the “right” side of the law into trouble, without any dire circumstances to explain succumbing to the temptation. She came out of it very well, and perhaps in fact better. Certainly in her behavior toward you, her attitude toward life was a wonderful gift.

    1. Yes, it did take quite a turn, didn’t it? On the other hand, by the time I was born, and began to know my aunt, circumstances had turned again, and the past was in the process of being either forgotten, or buried, or incorporated. I suppose it was a combination of all three, actually.

      It’s true, isn’t it, that the simplest, most innocuous decision was be that proverbial first step down the slippery slope. So often in life, things run out of control unseen, until that day when we finally look around and say, “How did that happen?” Her story’s certainly a salutary reminder that even the smallest decision carries import.

  22. Fascinating story, Linda. Sorry it took me so long to get to it. And I really liked your chapter one, chapter two approach. The pig is a treasure, a reminder. I have always liked the idea of having serious money, for all of those serious things we have to do, and play money to spend however the heck we want to. I’ve also always believed in not buying things that you either can’t afford or can barely afford. It’s bound to turn around and bite you in some way.Very well done. –Curt

    1. Of course, the small irony is that Aunt T no doubt held your same values. My grandparents did, and all of her siblings did, so there’s no reason to doubt that she would have agreed with you about the dangers inherent in over-extension. On the other hand, who among us hasn’t done something, sometimes, that we knew wasn’t right, or which at least made us uncomfortable with ourselves? I certainly have. That may be part of the reason I felt more, rather than less, affection for Thelma once I heard her story.

      Thanks for the good words, Curt. Needless to say, the split between “chapters” was an obvious one.

      1. I agree on Aunt T, Linda. 100% We have all done things in our life we wish we hadn’t. And some are illegal. Our justice system sucks at times. Letting lots of people go who have done infinitely more harm than Aunt T. I am thinking banks, etc. in the 2008 crash, for one. Thelma ended up paying dearly. And she took time to go out go her way to be kind to a favored niece. Sounds like a good person to me. –Curt

  23. I’ve really enjoyed reading the story of Aunt T. It wonderfully conveys how she made some poor decisions, yet learned from them and was an incredible person.

    1. I’m glad I finally learned the story, and I’m glad you enjoyed reading about it, Sheryl. Rather than being a story of “Virtue Rewarded,” it’s more a story of “Virtue Reclaimed” — but that’s just as satisfying. In fact, it might be more satisfying for those of us who might have a fault or two!

  24. It really does show though how innocently a slip up can snow ball on you. A small indiscretion with the intention of making it right next paycheck leading to a pile of them and a hopeless debt. Clearly she was more comfortable with her punishment than she was with the ongoing guilt even if she couldn’t quite stop. People make mistakes and she paid pretty dearly for hers as regards time lost with her son and Red seemed like a very decent person. I am glad that your relationship was able to be left in its innocence until you were old enough to reconcile what you knew to be her true character with the mistake she paid so dearly for.

    1. I’m still thinking about the situation, and other questions have come. For example, they were living with Red’s mother, who was caring for the baby. I wonder what role, if any, she played in a divorce taking place so quickly. Many questions are unanswerable, of course.

      Still, the famous lines from Walter Scott’s “Marmion” certainly apply: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” It occurred to me in the process of writing this that, usually, the web is meant to trap other creatures, but in the case of deception, it’s the spider spinning the web who is herself entrapped.
      Too bad I never thought of that in high school English.

      In the end, the discoveries have only made me regard my aunt, and my dad, and my grandparents, with even more affection and respect. Events like this can spin a family out of control, but they managed, as Faulkner would say, not only to endure, but to prevail.

      1. True, the web is generally the lies we tell to others and to ourselves. Your question on whether Red’s mother had a role in the divorce is a good one. I have seen cases where someone was willing to wait or forgive but the advice of mother that divorce was just the only way prevailed.

    1. She was special, and there’s no question that the more unfortunate experiences of her life helped to shape her into the woman she was when I finally met her.

      Kids never think the adults around them possess complex, interesting histories, but every one of them does. That’s one reason your photos are so interesting. You manage to hint at the complexity of their lives behind the image.

  25. This is such a poignant story, and you told it so well. Your aunt really did learn the lesson of earning, didn’t she? She sounds like a gracious lady, when she might have become hardened. Perhaps our jails now should be softer, like the one you describe here, with a view to reforming rather than punishing.

    1. She was gracious, in every sense of the word. As I think back on things now, it seems to me she knew she’d been given a second chance, and she was eager to make the best of it. I’m happy the family accepted her back, and gave her that chance to start over.

      It may well be that I never heard about the whole unfortunate episode because everyone simply forgave her, and moved on. That certainly has been my experience with certain events in my life — no reason it couldn’t have been the same for them.

        1. Send that front down our way. We need it to come through, and send the developing tropical system elsewhere. I am not pleased by the thought of a storm developing the first week in October!

          1. No, the storms seem to be so violent now, don’t they? Just as the scientists have been predicting for so long. We got a spattering of rain today, about enough to make the dust on the leaves wet :) Such as it is, I’ll send it along to you!

  26. I really enjoyed rereading this set of posts on Aunt T again. I hadn’t remembered all of the details exactly right (I had thought it was a beautiful ceramic box, when it really was a beautiful ceramic piggy bank); but I love how your aunt learned a lesson a hard way – and then shared her knowledge of the importance of saving for special things with her niece in such a lovely way. I also found it amazing (yet very realistic) that no one in an small Iowa town ever told you about your aunt’s past. Beautifully-written posts!

    1. I’m really honored that you took time to read these again — that’s quite a compliment. The more I think about it, the more surprised I am that I never heard about her shenanigans: not from the town, and not even from my family. I certainly am glad. By the time I found out, it was surprising, but not confusing or distressing, as it might have been when I was younger.

      It’s interesting that you remembered a ceramic box, rather than a ceramic elephant. As always with a story or memory, getting some of the details confused doesn’t necessarily blur the truth of the tale. I’ve always loved Faulkner’s comment: “What do facts and truth have to do with one another?” Granted, we might like a few more accurate facts in our news reporting, but in story-telling? It’s the greater truth that counts.

  27. Glad you told me about this two part story. It’s amazing to me how small communities protect the innocent hearts whether with intent or as a collective subconscious. One would think that the small town gossip would tear down but I know a couple of examples where I was protected from it as a child. Food for thought.

    1. It’s really quite a story. Even when I was an adult and visiting Aunt T in Manhattan, no one said a word. The day that the Twin Towers came down, she’d just gotten home from taking a walk, and I managed to get a phone call through to her. How that happened, I’ll never know, but she was fine, and I was glad to know it. That was almost the last time we talked.

      1. Imagine if your impression and relationship with Aunt T were allowed to be tainted by the “reality” of her past. People do change, and they should be allowed to change instead of being forever labelled by one misdeed. I certainly would want that for myself.

        1. In truth, I don’t think knowing about her past would have made a bit of difference if I’d found out when she was alive. What I do wish is that I’d known soon enough to ask my dad some questions. He was the oldest of the kids, and the most responsible — it would have been fascinating to find out more about how everyone coped with the situation.

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